Virginia Bill Would Allow Trespass Charges Against Reporters

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A state senator has proposed legislation that would allow trespassing charges to be filed against “scuzzball reporters” who enter private property to gather news about a death or other traumatic event.

Although state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli’s bill targets journalists, it also could make criminals of virtually anyone else who ventures onto the traumatized person’s property — door-to-door salesmen and delivery drivers, for example.

Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, said he plans to amend the bill, SB 1120, to make it clear that a friend or acquaintance who drops by would not be trespassing. His goal, he said, is “to keep reporters from bugging people” who are grieving.

“There’s obviously more than enough scuzzball reporters out there who don’t have a shred of human decency to give a flying rat’s tail about the condition or feelings or circumstances of these families — they just want a juicy quote from them,” Cuccinelli said. “If they are not going to regulate themselves, it’s our job to protect the people of Virginia.”

Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, says the bill infringes on the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

“It’s a direct attack on First Amendment newsgathering activity,” she said.

Cuccinelli disagrees.

“Nobody has a right to come onto somebody’s property. Show me where that’s in the First Amendment,” he said.

Under state law, a person can be charged with trespassing only if he’s been directly told to stay away or if a sign is posted prohibiting entry to the property. Cuccinelli’s proposed amendment to that law, however, would make entry illegal within a week after the resident “suffered a substantial personal, physical, mental, or emotional loss, injury or trauma,” provided the visitor knew or should have known about the trauma.

Stanley said that along with the constitutional concerns, the legislation is fraught with practical difficulties. For example, what constitutes a substantial emotional loss?

“It could be a child who lost a pet,” she said.

And, Stanley wondered, is word-of-mouth or a news report about an incident enough to establish that the visitor should have known about the trauma?

“There are no parameters or definitions around this,” she said.

Cuccinelli said visitors who demonstrate sensitivity have nothing to fear from his bill.

“The citizen doesn’t have to complain, this just gives them the ability to do it,” he said. “People who are being reasonable and conducting themselves in a decent manner, there’s no reason you’d expect anyone would be tagged with trespass under those circumstances.”

Stacy Ruble of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance says her organization has no position on the bill, but she doesn’t believe reporters as a rule are insensitive to crime victims.

“I don’t think I’d make that generalization,” Ruble said.

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